In the heat of July, our family vacation finds us back in West Virginia (our future retirement home near family living in the D.C and Boston areas). As churches and Christians across the country slowly open back up, we have found ourselves experiencing Christian hospitality in our visits to local area congregations.
On our first summer Sunday in West Virginia, we went back to Marvin Chapel UMC – a very small open country church near Shepherdstown, WV. Our presence put the number of worshippers solidly into the mid-teens (14 by my count). One or two people were wearing masks, but most were not. There was one young couple present, the rest were our age or older. The welcome was warm and gracious.
We decided to try a different church on our second West Virginia Sunday. We searched “the web” for churches listed in our area. We drove by a very nice-looking church that advertised on a sign outside that it was open and everyone was invited, but we could not find a worship time listed outside. On checking their website, we couldn’t find a worship time listed there either.
We finally settled on a different church we had noticed while out shopping. Their website indicated they were open for worship but did not list a time of worship or a physical address. Saturday evening, we drove by and read the sign out front. The time of worship on the sign stated 10:50 with a large “all are welcome” invitation. Sunday morning, we drove to worship. Arriving a few minutes before the designated worship time, we discover no cars in the parking lot. There was no one present! Dejected, we returned home and worshipped online with Arborlawn UMC (Jolynn’s home church in Fort Worth).
Last Sunday, we worshipped with our daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren – Grace (8) and Sam (5) – at their home church, Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Once again, the welcome was warm and gracious. Mt. Olivet (with a pre-COVID worship attendance of somewhere between 300 and 400) had an early outdoor service and their regular 11 a.m. worship inside. It was only their second Sunday back to in-person worship. Both registration in advance and mask wearing were required at the indoor service.
These three different experiences prod my reflections on what constitutes true hospitality.
Radical Hospitality Begins at First Impressions
Hospitality critically involves a warm welcome to all people who come for worship, but it starts long before someone is physically present. Outside signage is important, but in today’s internet culture, attention to what is on the website is the first, and hyper-critical impression that our churches often get to make in sharing our worship and invitation to the Christian faith. In each case, I found myself going back again and again to Thom Rainer’s (author of The Post Quarantine Church) insightful webinar that our conference shared with the Texas Conference on churches emerging from the COVID-19 Pandemic. Rainer gracefully but firmly asserted that the top front of a website for every church should have their worship times and physical address.
The issues we have stumbled across in looking for a West Virginia church home are not unique to this part of America. To the reader, before you go further, stop and check your church’s website. Are you greeted with worship times and a street address (vital for first time visitors using a navigation system like Google maps, Waze, etc.) from the opening page of the website? I recall checking the sites of 14 churches the Central Texas Conference at random immediately after the Post-Quarantine Church webinar. I deliberately chose churches in every district, from differing ethnic backgrounds, of varying sizes and in a variety of settings/locations (open country, small town, county seat, urban, suburban, etc.). If my memory serves me right, I only found one of the 14 that had half of what Rainer thought was essential on its front webpage.
We clergy tend to think of radical hospitality as being outwardly receptive to the marginalized and socially different. It is a good thing, indeed a godly thing, to be open and welcoming to those of a different ethnicity, nationality, socio-economic group, gender or sexual orientation. All of us need to double down on welcoming the stranger and thus following the biblical mandate. Hebrews 13:2 reminds us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” It is common and very appropriate to emphasize radical hospitality and openness to all as a part of our shared Christian witness. However, in today’s world, Christian faithfulness in invitation and hospitality must begin with clear and easy to find website-based communications, including basic physical location and worship times. This is the critical first step on the road to radical hospitality!
Continuing to Wrestle with Online Communion
Deliberately switching subjects, I have written several times on the issue of online communion. Initially, I approved of offering Communion online during this pandemic time only later to realize that the United Methodist Church’s General Conference had already spoken on the subject and officially rejected “virtual” communion. It was then that I indicated my preference that we do not celebrate “virtual communion” but that given my own previous approval of “virtual communion” a local church pastor should exercise their own best judgment in consultation with their District Superintendent and lay leaders. At the same time, another bishop, who is a good friend, wrote a piece encouraging online communion. In investigating the subject more deeply, it has become abundantly clear that we have no real consensus or denominational understanding of whether virtual communion should be allowed or not.
When we are past the pandemic (which we are not as is something that we must continue to diligently watch and be prepared for should “spikes” reemerge – but that is another blog for another time), there will come a time for the denomination to, as a whole, reconsider the issue of in-person versus “virtual” communion. The subject cries out for our thoughtful doctrinal investigation without throwing bricks at those who may disagree with us. The June 8 edition of the online magazine Firebrand published two articles in “point / counterpoint” style sharing differing reflections on the appropriateness of online communion – Incarnate Savior, Embodied Sacrament: Or, What I Affirm When Rejecting Online Communion by Drew McIntyre and The Case for Virtual Communion by C. Chappell Temple. I commend them both to your own reading and careful reflection.